Arsenal‘s 2013/14 campaign has been a significant one for many reasons.
It was kicked off by the £42.2million signing of Mesut Ozil, ending a long, unwelcomed run of summer transfer windows at the Emirates where Arsene Wenger had refused to invest substantial, premium sums in a single player. Previously, the Gunners’ biggest buy was their £15million purchase of Andrei Arshavin in 2009, and prior to that, their £13million swoop of Sylvain Wiltord had remained the Gunners’ record transfer for eight and a half years.
Likewise, having spent the vast majority of the season in pole position, this is the first Arsenal campaign for some time in which they’ve been able to upset the balance of power at the Premier League‘s summit, and albeit, rather briefly, distance themselves from their seemingly eternal battle of qualifying for the Champions League. The Emirates faithful will be disappointed however that their Premier League hopes have once again whittled down to a top four finish, following a recent slump in form.
And now, with their place at Wembley assured, Arsenal have the opportunity to end their nine-term silverware drought when they face Hull City in the FA Cup final, fatally coinciding with Wenger’s current Emirates contract coming to an end. The Frenchman continues to assure fans that the announcement of a new deal is just around the corner, but the underlying assumption is that either Wenger, the Arsenal board or both will view his position as untenable if the Gunners’ trophy duck continues past their tie with a rather ordinary Tigers outfit.
Indeed, it’s been a year of breaking new grounds and many tests, but for me, the ultimate examination of where Arsenal are at right now is whether or not they’re capable of qualifying for the Champions League and winning silverware in the same season.
Arsenal fans will feel that it’s been another season of ‘what ifs’ and in some cases that certainly rings true. Considering the Gunners spent 128 days at the top of the Premier League table – more than any other side – one has to contemplate whether their title hunt would still be alive right now if Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Mesut Ozil hadn’t all missed significant portions of the season through injury. The Welshman had claimed eight goals in six assists in 18 Premier League outings prior to his four month sideline bout, whilst Walcott’s absence and the subsequent loss of his pace and penetration in the final third has significantly debased the Arsenal game-plan, leaving their pass-centric midfield disturbingly one-dimensional at times.
But in my opinion at least, although the Emirates faithful may bemoan their side’s physio room misfortunes this year, as ever with Arsenal, it’s simply an issue of inadequate squad depth.
It’s no secret that Arsene Wenger has a personal distain for filling his Gunners roster with as many coveted stars as possible, instead favouring cost-effective solutions of the Tomas Rosicky, Mathieu Flamini variety and the regular use of high-potential youngsters, such as Serge Gnabry and Yaya Sanogo, in bit-part cameo roles.
Yet, if Chelsea and Manchester City, who boast by far the most expensively-cast, firmly understudied squads in the Premier League, struggle with the rigors of battling it out on multiple fronts, namely the Champions League, Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup, then what chance does a decisively weaker Arsenal squad have of doing the same?
Admittedly, considering their proven quality and prominent form this season, losing Ramsey, Walcott, Ozil and Wilshere would be a deathly blow for any top Premier League side. But if Arsene Wenger is unprepared to plan and financially invest for such an occasion, then Arsenal’s March-time slump can only be viewed as the Frenchman’s just deserves; in the world of Premier League football, you eventually reap what you sow.
Part of that problem can be traced to Wenger’s apparent dislike for natural athletes. In my opinion, it’s no coincidence that Chelsea’s Frank Lampard measures in atover 6 foot and has missed just 64 Premier League matches since joining the Blues ranks 13 seasons ago. Despite the ‘chubby’ jibes received in his earlier career, in terms of stamina and strength, the 35 year-old is an impeccable physical specimen.
Compare that to Arsenal, where Aaron Ramsey is the only first team midfielder who can claim a similar height and much of the squad spends a parallel amount time in the physio room as on the pitch. The North London side’s knack for lengthy injury lists has been a too regular occurrence throughout Wenger’s stewardship for it to be considered simply a repetitive twist of fate.
The Gunners will feel relatively confident in their chances of qualifying for Europe for the 17th year in a row this season and attaining their first trophy for nearly a decade. They’re currently just a point away from mathematically securing fourth place, and although Hull City have proved themselves worth adversaries throughout the season, few eyebrows will be raised if Arsenal steamroll them at Wembley come mid-May.
But failing to fulfil both ambitions simultaneously would be an enormous indictment on Wenger’s management of the Arsenal squad over the past few years and his stubborn views on how the Emirates roster should be built.
As much as one could point to the psychological baggage of the North Londoners’ trophy drought as a potential barrier to their FA Cup hunt, or their manager’s well-documented arrogance when it comes to playing ‘the Arsenal way’, which has made them too predictable against good quality opposition this year, no factor will be more influential than the size and depth of the Emirates roster.
In effect, it will be unquestionable proof that the current Arsenal transfer model in tandem Wenger’s tactical philosophy, which shies away from expensively-built, athletically gifted squads, isn’t capable of producing the successes expected from a club of Arsenal’s magnitude, financial backing and prestige.
Most troublingly for Arsene Wenger, that situation is unlikely to change without new leadership.